I am not a Zen Master

Many years ago, awestruck or perhaps even infatuated by water colors and crayons, I tried my hand at painting. My biggest fans were my parents who proudly displayed my works of art to each guest who came home. Sadly, our visitors were not connoisseurs of the fine things in life and couldn’t appreciate my stick figures and awry brush strokes painting sunrises (or sunsets) across fields and that ubiquitous pond. But soon I was jaded and trashed my dreams of being the next Picasso. Even at that age I was miserable, because I never could figure out no matter how much time I put into it, why my paintings always had “that” amateurish look!

Had I known what vision and composition was all about, I could have saved myself much frustration and maybe exhibited my works at Peggy Guggenheim. Sure, I loved painting, I could draw, get my proportions right, mix the right colors and shades etc., but the paintings never really worked because my subjects were not in the right place. I could never discover that ‘hidden secret’ that the masters knew. Much after I’d discarded my paint brushes and colors, I heard about vision and composition. By then, my amateurish attempts at painting had been replaced by equally amateurish attempts at photography. The saving grace was – it wasn’t too late. After I’d discovered and began learning (which I still am) this elusive secret, the visual language, it started becoming apparent which artists knew their craft and which hopeful ones would be like I was with painting – lost in translation.

Of all the photographers-writers, Michael Freeman, Chris Orwig, Susan Sontag & co., whom I have read, one stands out as brilliantly eloquent in his writing,– David duChemin. His books “Within the Frame” and “Photographically Speaking” are works of art in themselves, and David’s passion shines through. After reading these authors, I started asking myself “What is it that I want to say with this photograph? How can I say it best? Will it be understood?” The answer to the first question is a function of my vision and intent, to the second my expression, and to the last, interpretation.

For me, a “successful photograph” is a metaphor for a feeling that the artist is trying to express to the viewer. It is not about the subject or object, place, or event of the photograph, but rather about the feeling generated within the artist as part of making that image. And my opinion is that the success of the photograph should be evaluated only and only by the creating artist in whether his or her sense of feeling has been conveyed to the viewer through the image. This feeling is an indelible part of the photographer’s vision and intent which addresses what you decide to include in your frame and why. What you choose to keep within should mean something to you, or else be left out. As David puts it: “Intent matters. It is the prime mover. Without it, we are engaging in little more than accidentally exposing light to film or a sensor.”

Now as important a question our intent for a photograph is, it remains confined within us, unrealized, until it is within the frame. Our way of getting our inner feelings out is the photograph. Not the camera; the photograph. The camera is just the tool. The photograph is the very expression of our inner feeling experiencing freedom. How we make that photograph, with the tools at our disposal, and how close it comes to expressing what we hope, determines how successful that image is. To do that well, we turn to the language spoken by the photograph which is the subject, the subject matter and the composition, each of which give meaning to our photograph which is the story we want to tell. After that, interpretation is up to the ‘reader’. It is awareness and use of this visual language that allows us to move on from merely having vision to being able to express it. The better we know the language, its grammar, punctuation, syntax, the better our expression. Greater awareness of the language leads to an expanded and refined ability to use that language to express ourselves.

As an example, I made this photograph of an old man in Jaipur after watching him for about 15 minutes. He was sitting in the winter sun against this fascinating blue wall, with his “lathi” (bamboo staff) cradled in his lap and a withered “tulsi” (basil) plant up in front, while just behind him was a bright green potted plant. What I felt was a sense of time, of how we walk, oftentimes with support (the “lathi”) from one part of life to the other, from being an all green plant to a withered one. Was I able to express what I felt? I hope so.

We need to slow down – a mindful approach to our photographic process – being conscious of what we want to say and how we want to say it – will allow us to create images that are more able to express our unique inner voice that seems to prefer the camera as a means to getting those words out and onto paper. In our case the words are the elements around us, the paper is the photographic print. We’re left with arranging those elements within the frame – our visual language. Like a writer uses words and grammar to tell a story, photographers use the elements available in a scene and make decisions to create a story in a frame. Photographic elements such as lines, shapes, forms, textures, patterns, repetitions, color and light, when combined with the choice of optics and settings available, can be then arranged to express our vision. A grasp of what’s going on within the frame, and a mindful approach to creating photographs that speak this language, is enough to create powerful photographs that express something deep within us that stirs as we feel, not see. As David says, “Vision isn’t the goal. Expression is the goal”.

The better I am able to express, the better I’ll be interpreted and understood. I want to be understood, which is why I learn the visual language. So I don’t express in koans. I am not a Zen Master.

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10 Comments

  1. Raja April 15, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

    Wow ! Wish you GodSpeed in your explorations !

  2. DPK April 15, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    Great!!!

  3. Debesh April 28, 2012 at 12:25 am #

    Thanks so much Raja and DPK.

  4. Brian Hopps May 2, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

    Another excellent thought provoking piece Debesh. As someone who is predominately an introvert and not particularly good at expressing myself using words I sometimes wonder if it is neccessary to have this skill to be able to also effectively relate feelings and expression through the photographic medium.

  5. Dave Poindexter May 2, 2012 at 7:47 pm #

    Hi again Debesh,

    I’m glad you chose to write about visual language for your next subject, I have strong feelings about the importance of this subject in photography, as well. As I mentioned last time, I have had the fortune to be formally educated in the visual arts, especially in photography, and my comments necessarily are based, first, on those experiences, and on how I have used that training in my own photography since.

    Visual language is how a visual artist communicates with an audience. Principles and elements of design, most of which you listed at the end of your post are the formal units that make up that language, and the arrangement and composition of those units creates the message.

    It is important to note that there is no one universal visual language. Although they are all much closer in meaning and structure than many spoken languages. In this way, visual language is much more like the languages of music. Having been raised and educated in America, the western structure of visual language is most familiar to me, although I have some understanding of traditional Far Eastern visual language, too.

    To paraphrase my comments on your previous post, every photograph is an agent for communication, the the vehicle is the visual language shared by the photographer and the viewer. When the visual language is closely shared, the opportunity for deep and meaningful communication/expression is strengthened.

    I did not perhaps understand everything that you wanted to convey in your example photograph, but I think I did have a pretty close understanding. The staff was not visually prominent enough for me to make your connection, but I associated the cold weather evidenced by the gentleman’s dress and the bare branches of the larger, outdoor plant be the winter season and potentially a metaphor for his age. His pose suggests a meditative or reflective state of mind, and the somewhat out of focus green plant becomes a possible word/thought balloon for memories (perhaps not clearly remembered) from his own springtime as a younger man or even child. Visual language could take this interpretation even further from the composition, such as the man has his back to the sun, the colors of the photo are primarily cool ones, he is alone in the photo, etc.

    I hope you get even more out of this post’s discussions. Best, Dave

  6. David Coblitz May 5, 2012 at 12:54 am #

    While I don’t disagree with what you said, I do see it as a bit narrower than my thoughts on the subject. My favorite photograph I’ve taken is one that is a vehicle to bring out the viewer’s thoughts & feelings & only has those when seen & interpreted by the viewer. I see there as always being 3 elements to each photo. What the scene brought to it, what the photographer brought to it (which you well described), and what the viewer brings to it. My favorite emphasized the latter. What do you see in this? http://bit.ly/K6kBKV
    I literally almost never hear the same thing twice when asking viewers what they see in this photo!

  7. Laura Kaczmarek May 6, 2012 at 8:40 pm #

    @Brian Hopps – don’t worry, you don’t need to be good with words to express yourself photographically. You just need vision. :) And Debesh – I enjoy reading your posts. Food for thought. I don’t think that much when I go out to shoot. If I find a scene that speaks to me, I take the photo. I don’t even always know why a scene speaks to me. (Actually, I try not to think too much! I like to keep things simple.)

  8. Debesh May 6, 2012 at 11:08 pm #

    @Brian: Many thanks once again. No, not at all – I write because it then helps me critique my images better as the process in itself is more “deliberate”; you could maybe just sit down with your image on the screen, and scribble down your thoughts on composition and visual language or perhaps even just critique the image yourself in your mind. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. Coincidentally I’ve written about this in my post “Who am I?” Here is the link: http://debeshsharma.com/2012/04/who-am-i/

    @ Dave: I can’t find words to thank you enough for your time in not only reading my blog so carefully, but also in taking the time out to write your observations down which then permit me to reflect more on this particular subject. For example, I would have never used the cool tones of the image while describing the visual language. Thank you for pointing that out.

    @ David: Many thanks for your comment. Yes, that is indeed a fascinating photograph as we’ve discussed separately.

    @ Laura: Thank you once again for your comment and also for the smile. What you said is true really, but the process of reflecting (even, or at times especially, after the image is created) works wonders for me and does allow me to get better at my craft. Usually this self-critique happens during the post processing stage, when I don’t touch the image initially but just stare at it and focus on what’s right, and what’s wrong without the benefit of pixel manipulation. For some images, I write, not so much because the image is really “great”, but because the process of writing in itself leads to creation. More on that in the blog I mentioned to Brian.

  9. Sonny June 4, 2012 at 2:05 pm #

    I enjoyed the comments as much as the blog….I’ve never considered myself a professional or an amateur photographer…I just do it….because sometimes, the scenes, the little and the big things around me…the details and the syntax….the spaces in between are so overwhelming to not capture them, how I see them in my head….sometimes…its just a shaft of morning sunlight…filtering through my kitchen curtains…sometimes…..its the red of gulmohar trees against tar roads….on a hot summer noon…..the lift of a lip that never became a smile….I don’t think about it too much , unless of course I am taking the picture with a theme in mind…..

    I often say….I may not have the best equipment , but I do think I have the most essential tool…”an eye for photographs”….more often than not, you will see….that you see a reflection of the photographer in every picture…..my pictures almost always convey the mood I was in , when I took it…I dont know if thats good or bad….

  10. Debesh June 8, 2012 at 12:03 pm #

    Dear Sonny,

    Thank you so much. I’m sure you’d have enjoyed the comments as well – photographers far more qualified, capable and talented than me have written their thoughts for which I am grateful. I’ve seen your images and they’re indeed striking. What you need is the eye, rest everything else falls into place. I understand what you mean by “just do it”. Think Nike! And when you have the time do read my first blog – “I photograph, therefore I am”. It’ll resonate with you.

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